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Our Schools Need Diverse Role Models

July 30, 2012

Today’s guest post comes from Elissa Cook, who will serve her second term as a literacy tutor with Minnesota Reading Corps in August. She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2011. Outside of her work at school, she enjoys volunteering at places where she can use her Spanish skills.

Like anyone who works with young children, I’ve had my fair share of surprising comments from kids who haven’t yet learned societal taboos.

But one of the most striking encounters I’ve had was with a kindergartener who has one black parent and one white parent. As we were walking down the hall to meet with my fellow tutors, my student asked me, “Are they dark or light?” Startled, I replied, “They’re both light.” “Oh good,” the boy replied. “I like light people.” “Why’s that?” I asked, in as neutral a tone as I could manage. “Because I don’t like dark people,” he replied.

As a white, female literacy tutor working in a school where the majority of kids are students of color, this episode showed me once more the great need for diverse role models in our schools.

This young boy is one of the 18 students, grades K-3, whom I serve every day as a Minnesota Reading Corps tutor. I work with each student for 20-40 minutes per day, tracking their progress weekly. When students meet certain standards, they exit the program, and I pick up new kids.

I joined Minnesota Reading Corps to find out if I wanted to become a teacher. While I’ve realized that I don’t enjoy leading a classroom, I love working individually and in small groups with my students. On top of that, I’ve gotten to see how a public school works from the inside, which has been an eye-opening experience.

One of the things that’s caught my attention is the different backgrounds of the students and staff. I still remember watching the students stream through the doors on the first day of school and being struck by the contrast of the students’ darker skin with the light skin of most staff members.

Though my school has a dedicated staff, and Minnesota Reading Corps’ model has proven highly effective, our students still lack diverse role models. Most of them are taught by white females. While I have a good relationship with my students, I believe that having a teacher and role model to connect to on another level can only increase the chance of academic success, especially for Minnesota students whose academic scores result in one of the widest achievement gaps in the nation.

Throughout this year, I have watched my students struggle, learn, and take off. I’ve seen a first grader go from dreading words to voluntarily reading a whole book on his own. I’ve watched kids who came to school without knowing a single letter sound begin reading words.

Every time I look at my students’ progress, I wonder: What would have happened without the daily, one-on-one tutoring they receive from Minnesota Reading Corps? And how much more effective could we be with tutors who can connect on a deeper level to students of color?

Serving at a local school is one of the most important things anyone can do, particularly for those who share similar backgrounds with the student body. If you can commit to 11 months of service, with a stipend and education award, Minnesota Reading Corps continues to recruit full-time tutors. Learn more at www.MinnesotaReadingCorps.org.

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